Johnston: Grabovski in perfect position to excel

Mikhail Grabovski found a perfect fit to excel with the Washington Capitals.
August 23, 2013, 2:28 PM

The only person Mikhail Grabovski will have to blame if things don’t go well with the Washington Capitals is himself.

Armed with a fresh start and a golden opportunity, it’s hard to imagine a better landing spot for the 29-year-old centre after the Toronto Maple Leafs cut him loose with a compliance buyout earlier this summer.

From all accounts, Grabovski will be given an offensive role on a team that loves to score. He’ll also have a chance to be part of a winning environment in Washington, where the Capitals remain a legitimate Stanley Cup contender despite their inability to get past the second round so far in the Alex Ovechkin era.

Perhaps most importantly, he’ll be in the hands of a new coach after feeling mistreated and misunderstood by Randy Carlyle last season.

Grabovski already has warm feelings about Caps coach Adam Oates, who visited him in California earlier this month and sold him on the merits of joining the team. Oates promised Grabovski that he would be a key cog in Washington during the face-to-face meeting, according to agent Gary Greenstin.

“The most important thing you want from a team is that it has the right vision for (your player’s) talent,” Greenstin told sportsnet.ca on Friday. “Adam Oates is the kind of coach that talks to the player, you know what I mean? He’s a former player, 19 seasons in the NHL, and he talks to the players. I trust Adam Oates.

“His enthusiasm to work with Mikhail convinced us that this was the right fit.”

The veteran agent is fond of telling his clients that “the coach is always right” but Grabovski clearly didn’t heed those words last season in Toronto. It wasn’t just the Belarusian’s memorable expletive-filled exit — in which he called Carlyle an “idiot,” among other things — it was also the way he sulked around the dressing room at times when things weren’t going his way.

It’s not a coincidence that Greenstin made multiple cross-continent trips to Toronto during the lockout-shortened campaign. He was constantly trying to put his frustrated client at ease.

In many ways, the frustration was understandable.

Grabovski had thrived under previous Leafs coach Ron Wilson — scoring a career-best 29 goals and 58 points in 2010-11 while establishing himself as an elite puck possession player — but found minutes tougher to come by once Carlyle took over in March 2012, just days after he signed a five-year contract extension.

To Grabovski’s dismay, Carlyle chose to use him primarily in a defensive role last season and cut back his power-play time dramatically. The centre put up just nine goals and 16 points in 48 games as a result.

“This was the first time in his Maple Leafs experience he was playing third or fourth line,” said Greenstin. “Of course he was frustrated. … He had less ice time. Of course he was upset.”

The boiling point came when the Maple Leafs decided to buy out the $21.5-million remaining on his contract on July 4 — the day before he was set to marry his long-time girlfriend in Toronto. The off-colour comments about Carlyle that followed came during a particularly emotional time.

Even excusing him those, it was not a season that included the kind of mental outlook you would expect from a veteran NHLer, especially since the Leafs enjoyed more success on the ice than at any previous point during Grabovski’s tenure with the team.

If you caught the passionate centre in a quiet moment now, he would probably acknowledge as much himself.

All of which makes the opportunity in Washington that much greater. The tenure in Toronto and struggles with Carlyle are buried in the past. His new team and new coach couldn’t be happier to add his skill set to their roster and he’s entering a contract year with something to prove.

“Mikhail adds speed and offence to our lineup, and we are very pleased to have him,” said Capitals GM George McPhee. “We believe he will be an excellent addition to our club.”

Grabovski has shown himself to be an above-average NHL player in the past and there’s no reason he shouldn’t become that again. Not only might he end up seeing some time with Ovechkin on his wing, the power-play minutes he so badly craved last year will be restored.

On top of that, there’s every reason to believe that Oates will provide the support, encouragement and communication that Grabovski found lacking in Toronto.

If everything comes together this could be a savvy signing by the Caps, especially considering the hefty price tags other centres on the unrestricted free agent market came with this summer.

Mike Ribeiro ($5.5-million), Stephen Weiss ($4.9-million), Tyler Bozak ($4.2-million), Derek Roy ($4-million), Matt Cullen ($3.5-million) and Saku Koivu ($3.5-million) all earned contracts that carry a bigger cap hit than Grabovski’s $3-million deal, yet it wouldn’t be at all surprising if the newest Capital ended up having the best season of that bunch.

In all likelihood, he will be in line for a nice raise when free agency comes around next summer and the salary cap heads back towards $70-million.

Who knows? Grabovski may even end up signing a longer-term deal with Washington if the fit with the Caps turns out to be as good in practice as it appears on paper.

The bottom line is that it’s all in his hands now.

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